Cleanup To Take Days, De Blasio Says Despite Asbestos In Pipe Blast, No Public Health Threat

July 20, 2018 - 8:20 am

NEW YORK (1010 WINS) --  Cleanup is expected to take days after an 86-year-old steam pipe exploded Thursday morning beneath Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron District.

The pipe may have contained cancer-causing asbestos, but city officials say there is no public health threat from the blast.

Five people, including three civilians, suffered minor injuries from the blast. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the cause of the blast in the 20-inch pipe is unknown.

"There was asbestos in the steam line casing,'' de Blasio said about eight hours after the explosion, but "the air cleared fairly quickly after the incident. There is no meaningful presence of asbestos in the air at this point.''

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While there is no "meaningful presence" of asbestos in the air, debris could have entered buildings' air conditioning systems. 

Despite the mayor's comments, officials urged people who may have gotten material on themselves to bag their clothes and shower immediately as a precaution. ConEd said it would provide compensation to those who turned in their soiled clothing to the utility. 

First responders and those who work and live in the area were spotted wearing masks. First responders also were spotted hosing their vehicles off. 

On a street near the blast site, firefighters stripped off their heavy outerwear, bagged it and entered a red decontamination tent in their gym shorts and T-shirts to take showers.

Carlos Rodriguez was walking a dog moments after the blast occurred, not realizing what happened, but he knew something was wrong.

"I was able to taste that in my mouth, I had a sore throat, a little bit of a sore throat for a while," he said.

He went home, took a shower, and put the conaminated clothing in the hamper. That's when he realized he was supposed to bag his clothing and sneakers and bring it to Con Ed. He did, and then filed a claim for $300.

"All I wanted to get rid of that in the safest way possible, and if I get reimbursed for my expenses, great. I need another pair of sneakers," he said.

The steam from the explosion -- which occured at 6:40 a.m. near 21st Street -- rose ten stories high and forced the evacuation of 49 residential and commercial buildings in the area. De Blasio said it could take days to check and clean the buildings, which include 28 in a "hot zone'' closest to the site where the blast left a crater roughly 20 feet by 15 feet in the street.

"The area of West 19th Street to West 22nd Street between Broadway and Avenue of Americas remains a potential affected area pending an assessment of air and debris in the vicinity," the city's Emergency Management Department said in a statement. 

The blast wreaked havoc on traffic and public transportation in the area.

1010 WINS traffic reporter Greg Rice says, "Traffic-wise, the big closure is Fifth Avenue, they've got that shut down pretty much south of 34th Street all the way to 19th Street, that's the story for maybe a few days, so you want to think about getting away from Fifth Avenue as far as you can. I would say Second Avenue and Seventh Avenue, that's really the way to get downtown."

The blast left passers-by in a state of shock.

"It was a pretty violent explosion,'' Daniel Lizio-Katzen, who was riding his bike through the neighborhood, told the Daily News. "The steam was shooting up into the air about 70 feet. It was pushing up at such a high pressure that it was spewing all of this dirt and debris. The cars around were coated in mud. --- It left a huge crater in the middle of the street.''

Brendan Walsh, a student at New York University, had just gotten off the train when he saw the plume, "and a lerge scatter of debris," he told the newspaper. "I was standing behind the police line when a Con Ed worker came rushing over and screaming at police and firefighters to push everyone north because he was worried that there could be secondary manhole explosions.''

This isn't the first steam pipe explosion. In fact, past ones have been deadly: In July 2007, a blast near Grand Central Terminal left one woman dead from a heart attack as she fled. Dozens were injured. And in August 1989, a steam pipe explosion in Gramercy Park killed one resident and two ConEd workers.